NEW YORK—He greeted with a big, welcoming smile. Without missing a beat he said, “Let me show you around.”
On the walls of his office hang a plethora of photos of himself with big-time actors and other VIPs like Lauren Bacall, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Kline, Shirley MacLaine, Al Pacino, Gregory Peck, Catherine Deneuve, Christopher Reeve, Paula Abdul, Paul Simon, Walter Cronkite, Donald Trump; former New York City mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg; former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush; Charles, Prince of Wales; and so on.
The namedropping seems endless. It’s clearly obvious the six-time Tony award-winning Broadway producer Stuart F. Lane feels more comfortable talking about all the wonderful people he has worked with than about himself.
“I love working with talented people!” Lane gushed with excitement. “That is one of those amazing things I get to do.”
It is just as obvious how much he loves the theater—part of his religion, he said: “It’s a celebration of life; it’s a celebration of humanity. It allows us to learn about ourselves, our foibles, our pluses, our minuses, and be better for it after the experience.”
The last scene of his favorite play, “Our Town,” sums it up for him. The main character, Emily, decides to relive one ordinary day of her life, which becomes overwhelming.
“She wakes up and the coffee smells extra special, the lights are brighter, the icicles are glistening more,” Lane explained. “She asks the stage manager whether anyone realizes life while they live it, and is told, ‘No, the poets and saints, maybe they understand it and appreciate it.'”
Open and perceptive, with a youthful and lively demeanor, simply put, Lane wants to show audiences how to appreciate life.
“So we are poets of the theater,” he said. “The theater is not the cure for cancer, but we enrich the lives of people who are living, and I think that is a great purpose in life.”
Act One, Scene One
There is one day Lane will never forget.
After his family moved to Great Neck in Long Island, he became best friends with a kid named Ricky. They used to hang out after school together. He wondered why Ricky’s father was at home in the afternoons and asked, “Ricky, doesn’t your father work for a living?” Ricky’s father happened to be an actor who worked nights. Lane thought that was just great.
Ricky would play Broadway albums for Lane and they would watch comedy movies together. One day Ricky said, “My father is in a Broadway show,” Lane recalled.
Lane had never seen a Broadway show.
He raised his voice and said: “I was one of those kids where my parents would look at me and say, ‘Do you know how much it costs to buy a ticket for a Broadway show? For a ten-year-old kid! I’m not going to waste that kind of money.'”
Then he lowered his voice almost to a whisper, recalling the wonderment, “So here was an opportunity to see a Broadway show.”
He loved the whole excitement of putting on his father’s tie and a jacket, and driving into Manhattan—which he said, “is always still so exciting”—and seeing not one of those match box movie houses in the suburbs, but a real Broadway theater designed in the last turn of the century.
Once he got in the theater he was thrilled to get not just one, but two souvenirs, “You get a ticket with the name of the show right on it. It doesn’t say ‘Admit One,’ it has the name of the show, and then you get a Playbill.” The curtain hadn’t even gone up yet and he was already so excited.
Ricky’s mom marched them down to the front row, to see a musical written by Neil Simon called, “Little Me,” staring Ricky’s father, Sid Caesar.
Sidney ‘Sid’ Ceasar happened to be the legendary king of sketch comedy, known for the 1950’s live television series, “Your Show of Shows.” When Ceasar died last year, Mel Brooks called him “a giant,” and on “The Daily Show” John Stewart said, “For everybody that is in comedy around the world, we all lost our grandfather today.”
Lane was just ten years old, so he didn’t quite understand the historical significance of the show at that time.
“The audience is rollicking, roaring with laughter, and Sid is up on stage, he’s faking tap dancing, he’s making jokes,” Lane recalled.
“We go backstage afterwards and there he is holding court with all his friends and they are laughing and backslapping and I’m looking at this guy, he’s got a cot, a refrigerator, a television set—it’s like a home away from home.” Lane thought it was terrific.
At that moment, he knew that he wanted to work in the theater. He thought, “Why would you want to do anything else?”
He acted in school plays and became vice-president of the theater club. After getting his BFA in acting at Boston University, instead of training in regional theater, as was customary, he went straight to New York City.
It was a tough time economically for the theater industry in the 70s.
“New York was dying in terms of theater, you had “Chorus Line” and “Annie” and that was it,” Lane said. Johnny Carson had closed up shop and all his acting friends had gone to California, so he also went to Hollywood.
He had a five-year deal, with support from his family, to prove himself. So his struggle wasn’t financial, “It was a matter of self-respect, more than anything else,” he said.
In the Wings
While out in California after seeing all the agents and going to auditions, he decided to write a play. He recounted his thought process, “And once I write my own play, I’m going to put myself in it and show off my talent, and I’ll put my girlfriend in it.”
He paused and said on an upbeat, “And then, inadvertently it became the first show that I produced.”
He had to find a whole cast and crew who would volunteer their time.
“I had to hire a director, people to work the box office, build the sets, do the costumes. I had to go out and get local businesses to loan me furniture for the set, buy paint for the set, press was free, and it was an experience, I had to pay for advertising, I had to put together a logo,” he said in staccato rhythm.
Writing his own play was the natural step of going from acting to producing, and it gave him practical experience. The show, called “In the Wings,” recouped three-quarters of the expenses. He welcomed the encouragement. “You are lucky if you get three-fourths back, so I was on my right track,” Lane said.
While his first play was in Los Angeles, he felt he was not progressing as fast as he wanted to in the industry because LA is all about film and TV, he said. He was ready to step on to the center stage. Broadway was calling, so he moved back to New York.
Since then Lane has produced numerous plays and musicals, including “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Gypsy,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Top Hat,” “The Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and “Will Rogers Follies.”
What Lane likes most about producing, he said, is “the illusion of having some control of my life.”
“As an actor I was always going with my hat in my hand for a job. As a producer I’m not at the mercy of somebody else’s opinion, schedule, or agenda.”
He willingly likes to take on the responsibility and get the credit for the successes and if a show doesn’t work, “I have no one to blame but myself,” he said.
It’s not unusual for a play or musical to take about seven years from the time the story is conceived or the rights obtained, until it finally comes alive on stage.
It took eleven years to develop “Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” a musical he produced with his wife, Bonnie Comley, currently playing on Broadway.
“It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s engaging, but the down side of doing shows like that is that there’s no star, there’s no Hugh Jackman in it, no recognizable title,” he said. It’s based on a movie called “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” an old English black and white film.
Lane decided on Gentleman’s Guide when his friend Joey Parnes, whom he’s known and worked with for decades, introduced him to the project. Lane explained, “I always wanted to work with Joey again.”
The real challenge, Lane said, is finding the material that is compelling enough.
“You can read the script; if you can’t read it, you should hear it; if you can’t hear it, you should see a presentation of it; but ultimately I have to see it myself.” He has to make sure he feels emotionally connected to the show and the people he works with, and then he looks at the finances.
While he’s produced “Merchant of Venice,” which played to rave reviews, and other serious plays like “West Side Story,” Lane leans more to the lighter side.
“Comedies are always more fun to live with than tragedy … With a little humor we can get through things,” he said.
Yes to Tonys!
When Lane won his first Tony Award in 1991 for Best Musical for the play “Will Rogers Follies,” he said, “It justified my entire life! To finally achieve what was my dream, to actually win a Tony award was amazing.”
To all the naysayers, who were telling him to get a real job, he said laughing, “See, I knew I was right! I knew it!”
By the time he won his sixth Tony last year for “Gentleman’s Guide” the sentiment shifted from himself to the team. He said he felt proud of the people he worked with, “They all worked so hard, and to be recognized by your peers is always a pleasure.”
Ever Transitioning Broadway
Broadway has gone through “oh, many, many, many, many changes” over the years, Lane said, adding that the theater is always transitioning.
The generation before him described the Broadway community as a mom and pop business, with only one producer—like David Merrick, George Abbott, or Hal Prince—running a show.
Now things have become a little bit more complex. There are more producers on board for productions that are getting more expensive, he said.
Then another big transition happened when corporations started to get involved, such as Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Co., and Time Warner Inc. “Now all of a sudden it’s big business, and the power kind of shifts to the big entities,” Lane said.
Still what hasn’t changed overall, is that producing Broadway shows has always been a very collaborative business. Lane usually works with several other producers, including his wife Bonnie Comley, a three-time Tony Award winner.
And because it’s such a collaborative process, Lane said, “It’s like building a house on sand.” You have to be “very flexible, because things change,” and sometimes for the better.
Plays are thriving on Broadway now, Lane said. The refurbishment of Broadway in the past 15 years and the more recent renovation of Times Square have enhanced the whole theatergoing experience.
Expanding the Audience
Not everyone has the means to see a Broadway show on Broadway or one on tour.
The shows on tour do their best to give a sense of a Broadway show, but it’s a pared down version because of logistical and economic restrictions. For example, the sets are smaller for transport and the actors in the cast may not be as famous.
In New York the companies are in-house. Producers can access the best resources and the most talented people, including the best designers, directors, and actors, etc.
“So it kind of gets you thinking,” Lane said. “If I can give them a sense of what Broadway is like digitally: shooting real actors, in real time, sweating, spitting, doing swordplay….” all of that can be provided for a fraction of the price.
Last year Lane and his wife founded BroadwayHD, a service that captures Broadway plays live with high-definition cameras and delivers them via the Internet.
So far they have captured Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad playing in “Romeo and Juliet,” and they just partnered with HBO to shoot “Lady Day” at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
There may be some minor editing, whereby two performances of the same play may be combined. In the case of Lady Day, they kept the same director, script, and leading lady, Audra McDonald, but instead of the stage, they digitally captured the performance in a defunct nightclub in New Orleans.
“It is not a movie,” Lane said. “We are creating a new art form.”
Fostering The Legacy
As it can take several years to bring a project to life, Lane likes to keep several irons in the fire. One of those big irons is education, which he considers extremely important.
Understanding the importance of theater as a form of expression that helps people understand their emotions and all the multidimensional facets of life, Lane said, “In the [theater] business, we all cringe when we hear that the arts are being terminated in the schools.”
He is very active with his Alma Mater, taking part on the Board of Trustees at Boston University and on the Board of Advisers in the College of Fine Arts.
About 17 years ago he set up an endowment that allows the senior class to come to New York every Spring to do auditions. “So you are not just kicking them out of the nest and taking their money after four years, but you actually set them up for a possible job,” he said.
The couple just recently set up another endowment to start a new musical theater program at the school.
“Music Theater in particular is the backbone of the [performing arts] industry. It employs the most people, it has the highest grosses, and they last the longest. A play at best lasts two-and-a-half years, but we get musicals that run twenty years! Now that’s a living!” he said.
Lane has also written several books. His latest, “Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way,” was just published last month. It’s a hefty book and the first to cover African Americans’ contribution to the theater in such a comprehensive manner.
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Lane said, “This is kind of a legacy for the children, that no matter what they do with their life, they can always say that they have roots in the theater. So in generations to come … they can say, ‘you know, your grandfather was a six-time (maybe eight-time by the time I die) Tony Award winner, and he was ‘Mr. Broadway,'” Lane said with a big, broad smile.
This Is New York (TINY) is a feature series that delves into the lives of inspiring individuals in New York City. See all our TINYs here.